Stories are Like Math, with Two Examples from Students

I started teaching my first student a little over two years ago. His name was Parker. He is still my student.


Parker started the third grade this year and was very happy to learn that he is more advanced in English math than his classmates are in Chinese math (he is from, and lives in, China). His class is studying how to do the perimeters and areas of squares and rectangles. Parker and I went through that many months ago, and we went through the Pythagorean theorem (how to find the hypotenuse of a triangle with A^2+B^2=C^2) a few months ago, along with how to find the area of triangles. Just recently we are basically through how to find the circumference and area of circles. Parker likes math, but still, learning this type of thing can be boring. So, here's what we do.

We start off by reviewing things, we do work on terminology but our main focus is on the math skills themselves. We do a square, a rectangle, and a triangle. Then we focus a little more on a circle because that's the most recent thing we've been working on. Along the way we encounter questions and difficulties and deal with these. For instance, Parker didn't know how to do long multiplication or long division. He needed to know these things to solve the problems we were working on. He now knows how to do both of these, including decimals. Then the fun begins.

Now I draw a "crazy shape", that's what Parker likes to call them. I usually make some kind of castle, because we both like castles (everyone likes castles). A few days ago I drew a tower. The main part is a rectangle, the roof is a triangle with overhanging sides, the door is a rectangle, and I put a circle window in it. Parker didn't like the circle window and insisted that we put a circular object on top of the roof. I imagine it's some sort of magical ball, maybe it controls the weather or something. I then give him about half of the measurements. He has to use deduction to find the rest of the measurements, and then he has to use those to find all of the perimeters and areas that I ask for. He can do semi-circles if a "crazy shape" calls for it as well.

This is quite fun, and challenging, and engaging. But, this is an English class, not a math class. So, we add on to this. In addition to starting every lesson off with a conversation about what's been happening during the week in both of our lives, I also have Parker make up a story about the castle at the end. If I remember right, this story was about a princess using a magical pen to shoot a bad guy, or something like that. It's super interesting every time.


A few months ago I was working with another student a few times a week that was also very good at math. Alex and his father both emphasized and valued math and science, and weren't worried about almost anything else it seemed. But, I always try to get some free talk in there and it did come up that Alex had read the Harry Potter books in Chinese and liked them. I encouraged him to read Beedle the Bard and watch the movies in English. He decided to re-read all of the books in English and watch all of the movies in English, which he did. I tried to build on this by having conversations around it for about a third to a half of the class. But, Alex really struggled with it.

Having an open conversation with Alex was like trying to get cold honey out of a jar, slow and frustrating. In the case of honey you can just let it heat up and the problem will solve itself, not so with Alex and conversation. I know this because I tried waiting for him to start expanding. Often kids will naturally start to expand their conversations, but sometimes that theory just doesn't quite work out in practice. What to do?

We struggled with this for a few weeks. A conversation might go something like this:

Jeff - "Alex, so what do you like about Harry Potter?"

Alex - "Dumbledore."

Jeff - "Good. Why do you like Dumbledore?"

Alex - "He's smart."

Jeff - "Cool. So why do you think he's smart?"

Alex - "What he did with the snitch."

You get the idea. I tried many things. I do a bit of writing and I've done quite a bit of public speaking, so I know how to tell a story and make things engaging. I showed all of these things to Alex. I showed him a bunch of structures for making interesting stories and points. I gave a bunch of examples. We practiced. It didn't work. He still just couldn't explain why or give examples when answer questions. What else to try?

Math! Alex is good at math. He's spent most of his life working on understanding math, and he understands it very well. When he asked me to show him how to figure out square roots by hand I had to look it up to show him. Also, he's 9. Since he understands math so well I thought we might be able to use that. Math has a syntax, a certain order that things have to work in. Stories also have a syntax. Long multiplication was our savior.

We did one of these long conversations where I had to slowly draw each little answer out of him one at a time. With these pieces, which I didn't record unfortunately, I demonstrated how each of them were just like a piece of the process that you go through when you multiply 12 times 14. Four times two and you bring down the eight. Four times one and you bring down the four. One times two and you bring down the two. One times one and you bring down the one. Nothing plus one is one. Four plus two is six. Eight plus nothing is eight. The answer is 168. If you skipped one of these steps you wouldn't have the answer. If you were explaining how to get the answer to someone and you skipped a step then they would never understand. He understood the importance of this with math, we just applied that to stories as well.

We took one answer structure - the simple answer plus why plus an example - and gave it a try.

Jeff - "Who do you not like in Harry Potter."

Alex - "Voldemort and Nagini are bad because they killed Harry Potter's parents and eat people."

Well, that is a beautiful thing my friends. Now, eventually I would like the ability to expand this into a full story that could be made to last from 30 seconds to 3 minutes depending on the situation. But, that is a solid sentence and excellent progress. I was very happy with it, and Alex was happy with it.

There are many hard problems in the world and in life. Knowledge and communication are two of the big ones. This is just a very small glimpse of my unique take on both of them. If you want to see how far the rabbit hole goes, take a look at some of my other writing.


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